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Friday, October 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Lawsuit alleges Okanogan County held woman illegally based on her immigration status

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 9, 2019, 9:04 p.m.

A guard with the GEO Group sits at a desk in a housing area at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement  detention facility in Tacoma on Sept. 10, 2019. Maria Del Rayo Mendoza Garcia was taken to the detention facility after an arrest in March, the subject of a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Spokane against Okanogan County. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
A guard with the GEO Group sits at a desk in a housing area at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Tacoma on Sept. 10, 2019. Maria Del Rayo Mendoza Garcia was taken to the detention facility after an arrest in March, the subject of a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Spokane against Okanogan County. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Two Washington civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of a woman who alleges she was illegally detained in Okanogan County earlier this year based on her immigration status.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Columbia Legal Services filed a civil complaint in Spokane on behalf of Maria Del Rayo Mendoza Garcia, alleging violations of federal civil rights by the county, the sheriff’s office and jail.

The lawsuit alleges local authorities held Garcia, who was arrested in Chelan County on a fourth-degree assault charge in March, for nearly two days after a judge ordered her release on the assault charge. That allowed agents of the United States Border Patrol to arrive at the jail in Okanogan and question Garcia about her immigration status.

Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said Wednesday afternoon he hadn’t received an initial claim for damages in the case, nor had he been served with the lawsuit. After later reading a copy of the complaint, Hawley said Okanogan County does not hold detainees simply based on civil requests from federal authorities, instead requiring an affidavit of probable cause, as was provided in Garcia’s case.

“I think they’re just not understanding our process,” Hawley said of the lawsuit. “Hopefully we’re going to be clearing that up.”

Garcia sued the county under a section of federal law that does not require a claim for damages before a lawsuit can be filed, according to her legal team.

A similar lawsuit led officials in Yakima County to agree in February to no longer detain people only on immigration holds by federal officials. Matt Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and one of the attorneys handling Garcia’s case, said the lawsuit was filed to ensure that other jurisdictions aren’t acting as extensions of the federal government in enforcing immigration law.

“They simply don’t have the authority to do that,” Adams said. “The authority to basically stick their nose in federal law enforcement.”

In Garcia’s case, the border patrol agent made a request of the county jail to hold her through a form that indicates the Department of Homeland Security believes the person has entered the country illegally. But the civil rights groups argue that form does not indicate a finding from a neutral judge, nor does it require local jails to hold the person.

Hawley said Okanogan County changed its procedures in response to the Yakima lawsuit and wished to maintain a “working relationship” with Border Patrol as a detention facility for those waiting for transport to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Gov. Jay Inslee also signed a state law in May prohibiting local law enforcement from holding an inmate based solely on an immigration warrant, but that law went into effect after the allegations in the lawsuit.

The case is distinct from other legal action taken in the state on behalf of people detained directly by immigration authorities, including a Mexican man detained for several hours after he was questioned at the Spokane Intermodal Center in 2017. The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project also assisted with that lawsuit, which is scheduled for a hearing in a Yakima courtroom next month.

Garcia was taken to the Tacoma facility after her questioning in March. She was seen by an immigration judge, who released her, Adams said. She is currently staying with family.

The lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Salvador Mendoza. No date had been set for a hearing as of Wednesday afternoon.

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